Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 (Shakespeare Theatre)

The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC has been putting on Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 these past few weeks. We took our kids to see both performances, and here are our collective family thoughts.

For those unfamiliar with the plays, Henry IV has deposed (and probably killed) his cousin, Richard II and ascended the throne. His oldest son and heir, Prince Hal, carouses in taverns with Lord John Falstaff. The plays trace the growth and maturity of Prince Hal from “party animal” to king.

The second of the two plays is much more somber in tone, as Hal comes to terms with his responsibilities and sheds his old life and friends. Both plays are excellent productions. Edward Gero (who has played Scrooge in Ford’s Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” for several years) is Henry IV. Stacy Keach plays Falstaff. Prince Hal is played by Matthew Amendt. The acting is well done and restrained. It is easy to play Falstaff as a caricature (and he is for much of Part 1), but his buffoonery is shown for the weakness it is in Part 2. Similarly, playing Prince Hal requires a deft touch so that you understand and appreciate the wild youth but also understand and appreciate the prince’s growth into a king. His role is the emotional linchpin of both plays. Henry IV is seen initially in Part 1 as a strong and decisive ruler, and it is only in Part 2 that you see the unease and insecurity of a man who won the throne by force as opposed to inheriting it.

Our fifteen year old daughter much preferred Part 1 over Part 2. In fact, she completely disagreed with Prince Hal’s decision to turn his back on his old friends and banish Falstaff. The drunken carouser was much more interesting to her than the responsible king. <sigh>

Our twelve year old son also preferred Part 1—mainly because there was a battle scene in it. He liked the broad comedic value of Falstaff (which mostly vanishes in Part 2). Much of the issues of responsibility and maturity went over his head, but shedding friends is not his style, and he also disapproved of Prince Hal for doing so.

Jim and I generally preferred Part 2 over Part 1. The coming-of-age theme resonated with us in a way that it understandably did not with our children. This was an extremely well done production, and we highly recommend seeing it.

Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

This Stephen Sondheim musical is currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC.  We took the entire family to see it on Friday night, and it was enthusiastically endorsed by everyone (even the 12 year old boy who was definitely not enthusiastic about going).  The humor is occasionally off-color, but most of the humor is a result of comedic slapstick and timing.  The characters even occasionally interact with the audience.  In one memorable scene, the main character is supposed to steal another character’s potion book out of his pocket but inadvertently fails to do so.  (This is not part of the play—he just goofed.)  The main character comes back on stage and promises to rehearse harder to get it right for the next performance.  And then starts laughing.  It was hilarious.

And in the climactic “death” scene, the main character ad libs the humor so successfully that every character onstage breaks character at some point during the scene because he or she can’t stop laughing.  Somehow, this made the scene even funnier.

All the actors are excellent, but Bruce Dow, who plays the main character, is without doubt the star of the show.  His comedic genius is what makes this production so successful.

At the end of the show, the audience is present to witness a (successful) proposal to one of the cast members.  It was a fitting end to a highly entertaining evening.  (Although I hope she doesn’t regret the costume she was wearing at the time of the proposal.)  J

We give the production four thumbs up!

William, Victor (sort of), Charles and Peter

This past holiday break has allowed us to do some things that we don’t normally have time to do (like seeing 3-hour movies, but I digress).  There were several productions that we saw that we very much liked.

The first is the Shakespeare Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The Harman Hall stage resulted in a very clever staging of this light-hearted comedy.  There were times, however, when I thought the staging was cleverer than the acting, but, overall, it was a pleasant and well-done version of the play.  The brawl between the two lead female characters was particularly well done.  Our two children both enjoyed the production as did we.

We also saw the National Theatre’s production of Les Miz (the movie is on our list of things to see).  Jean Valjean is the linchpin of any production of Les Miz, of course, and we thought this particular production had a strong actor in that role.  Javert was also excellent.  (Our daughter wasn’t a fan of Javert because the actor reminded her of a substitute teacher that she particularly disliked.  It lent an air of authenticity to the production for her.)  Fantine’s voice was beautiful as well.  It is one of our favorite musicals, and this particular production did not disappoint.

One of our annual holiday traditions is taking the entire family to see Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre.  It gives us goosebumps every year to look up and actually see the box that Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated.  As with Les Miz, the casting of the main character, Ebeneezer Scrooge, is the key to a successful production.  This year’s actor was the same as last year’s actor, but he played the character a little differently than last year.  Less curmudgeonly but more Grinch-like, if that makes any sense.  We do require a satisfying redemption scene at the end of the play in order to feel complete, and this production fulfilled our expectations in that regard.  Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas if we don’t see A Christmas Carol.

Finally, the behemoth Peter Jackson film otherwise known as The Hobbit.  We had originally seen it in the Udvar-Hazy theatre (the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum near Dulles Airport) with its six story IMAX theatre.  Fifteen minutes before the end of the movie (when all the dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo are treed, for those who have seen it), the entire museum lost power.  Oops.  I then went and saw it again (at a lesser theatre) so that I could see what happened in the last fifteen minutes.  I understand the criticism leveled at the movie—it very much is not in the tone of the book but, rather, is more epic and in the same vein as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The movie also moves slowly in parts.  On the other hand, it is beautifully filmed and much of the background plot (derived from The Silmarillion and some of Tolkien’s other works) is meant as a richer prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy than most prequels are.  It clearly works for Tolkien geeks.  I’m not sure how well it works for the normal human population.  All I know is it works for me.  The movie is rated PG-13, and I think it’s a fair rating.  There is a lot of violence in the movie, mostly directed at orcs and goblins.  The themes are also fairly mature.  That being said, our eleven year old son loved it and happily sat through the almost 3 hour movie with no complaints.  Our fourteen year old daughter was thoroughly bored, but she is not a Tolkien fan.  I am seriously thinking of disowning her for her heresy.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

We went to see The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Shakespeare Theatre last night.  It’s a curious play, as Shakespeare resurrected Sir John Falstaff from his Henry IV plays that take place in the 1400s and time-traveled him to the Elizabethan era in the 1600s.  The Shakespeare Theatre production has the play set right after World War I, although the temporal setting has very little to do with the plot.

The play has a larger number of characters than a Shakespeare play typically has, which makes it difficult to keep them all straight and fully develop their personalities.  The play has also been characterized as being the least romantic of his comedies.  We didn’t find the play to be one of William’s stronger efforts, and the production suffered a bit from this.  The main plot where Falstaff is trying to seduce the two wives in order to later blackmail them as an income source was well done.  The subplot of a daughter and her three suitors (her preferred one being one that neither parent favored, of course) was underdeveloped, although I couldn’t tell whether that was due to the play itself or the production.

All in all, the actors were excellent (especially Falstaff and the two wives).  The play was engaging and light-hearted and amusing.  The production was well done, and it was definitely worth an evening’s entertainment.

The Servant of Two Masters

We saw The Servant of Two Masters at the Shakespeare Theatre last weekend.  The play is by Carlo Goldoni and is an example of Italian commedia dell’arte.  It was an interesting play and certainly captured the attention of the audience, some of whom were laughing uproariously through the entire performance.  I liked it but didn’t love it.  The play’s humor is heavily dependent on slapstick, which is not my preferred form of humor.  There are also some fairly raucous parts of the play.  The Shakespeare Theatre itself warns that the play is not appropriate for children 14 years or younger.  My take on it is that younger children (under 12) would actually enjoy the slapstick and not understand the more suggestive language while the 12-16 year old set would understand the references and might perhaps be somewhat uncomfortable with it (especially if they were seeing the play with their parents).

Jim and I were certainly in the minority in our (relative lack of) enjoyment of the play.  And the acting was excellent, as it usually is at the Shakespeare Theatre.

If you enjoy slapstick humor with excellent acting, this is certainly the play for you.  And, at the very least, it’s an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

Two Gentlemen of Verona

We saw Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC on Friday.  We have been season ticket holders for over 10 years.  Our philosophy on the Shakespeare Theatre season is that we go to the Shakespeare plays, but we are hit-and-miss on the non-Shakespeare plays.  Plays by playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw and Christopher Marlowe are good, but plays by Henrik Ibsen and Harold Pinter are not.

We very much enjoyed this particular production of Two Gentlemen of Verona.  The play itself is generally believed to be one of the first (if not the first) plays written by Shakespeare, and you can see early versions of plot devices in this play that he uses in subsequent plays.  The staging was also excellent and creative.  The characters were dressed semi-historically (with doublets and long gowns), but the set was somewhat post-apocalyptic, and there was music from Rihanna and U2 (both of which, I’m fairly sure, post-date William Shakespeare).  The acting was well done, and we very much enjoyed seeing Euan Morton, whom we had seen before as the lead character, Leo Frank, in Parade at Ford’s Theatre and as Anatoly Sergievsky in Chess at Signature Theatre.  We think he’s a very gifted actor and singer, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him at the Shakespeare Theatre.  The rest of the cast was very good as well, but it’s always nice to see a familiar face in a production.